A retreating glacier in the Italian Alps is revealing a forgotten world sealed in an icy tomb for more than a century. As Dharna Noor reports for Gizmodo, archaeologists excavating a mountaintop bunker used by the Austro-Hungarian army have unearthed a trove of World War I–era artifacts left behind by Alpine troops who fought Italian soldiers in sub-zero conditions at roughly 10,000 feet above sea level.
Items found at the site include coins, lanterns, canned foods, bottles, clothes, letters, straw beds and animal bones, reports Angela Giuffrida for the Guardian. Built in a cave on top of Mount Scorluzzo, near the Swiss border, the barracks—now part of Stelvio National Park—offer a rare glimpse into the lives of the frostbitten soldiers who fought in the White War, a series of high-altitude battles that took place across the Alps between 1915 and 1918.
“The barracks [are] a time capsule of the White War that [help] us to understand the extreme, starving conditions that the soldiers experienced,” Stefano Morosini, a historian at the national park, tells the Guardian. “The knowledge we’re able to gather today from the relics is a positive consequence of the negative fact of climate change.”
Last month, a team of archaeologists from the White War Museum in Adamello, Italy, recovered around 300 artifacts from the Mount Scorluzzo cave. Researchers had long known about the site but were unable to conduct excavations because a glacier had sealed it off. Melting caused by warming temperatures over the past few decades enabled the team to begin work at the cave in 2017, writes Hannah Frishberg for the New York Post.
“The findings in the cave on Mount Scorluzzo give us, after over a hundred years, a slice of life at over 3,000 meters above sea level, where the time stopped on Nov. 3, 1918, when the last Austrian soldier closed the door and rushed downhill,” says the museum in a statement, as quoted by CNN’s Jack Guy and Livia Borghese.
During the Winter War, soldiers fought in “extreme environmental conditions,” with temperatures dropping as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit, Morosini tells CNN. Troops carried supplies and munitions, including cannons and machine guns, on their backs or hauled the items with ropes and pulleys as they scaled the mountain, sometimes in blizzard conditions.
“Soldiers had to fight against the extreme environment, fight against the snow or the avalanches, but also fight against the enemy,” Morosini adds.
Jacey Fortin of the New York Times reports that most soldiers fighting in the Alpine battles died due to the brutal conditions, not combat. Food and much-needed resources were often in short supply along the windswept, frozen battle lines.
“Here, the men spend their days wrapped in shaggy furs, their faces smeared with grease as a protection from the stinging blasts, and their nights in holes burrowed in the snow,” wrote newspaper correspondent E. Alexander Powell in the 1918 book Italy at War.
Preservationists are caring for the artifacts found in the bunker and plan to eventually display them at a museum slated to open in Bormio next year.